Freedom of Expression: Interview with Valérie Butters

Valérie Butters is an artist who burst upon the art scene in Montréal, Toronto, British Columbia and Ottawa. She is fascinated by the subconscious and influenced by surrealism and expressionism. She has studied under many prominent contemporary artists, such as Jennifer Hornyak, Marilyn Rubenstein, Seymour Segel, Shirley Kats, Philip Iverson, Sophie Jodoin, and Jacques Clement. She is also inspired by the revolutionary Canadian artist, Paul-Émile Borduas. 

Borduas created a very different vision of life and art with his spontaneous expressions of emotions, feelings, and sensations. While his work was considered radical at the time, Butter’s work is seen as joyful explosions of colour and emotion. Her evolution and exuberant exploration of colour and composition make her still-lifes and landscapes flamboyant and exciting. 

Valerie attended the Ottawa School of Art in 2001 and, in 2005, graduated from a three-year Comprehensive Arts Program at the Saidye Bronfman Centre where she received art scholarships in 2003 and in 2004. Her quick evolution and exploration of colour and compositions resides in her still-lifes and landscapes. Her large formats and flamboyant style have caught the eye of art critics such as Henry Lehmann of the Montréal Gazette (11 September 2004) who described her work as “...interestingly gaudy, exuberantly messy...” 

“... Valerie's work is an expression of her constant quest for freedom of expression and the passion to let her subconscious take control ...” (Brett Anningson; Arabella Magazine, Spring 2015) Valérie now resides and paints in Pemberton, British Columbia with her husband and son. 

I was born in Chicoutimi, Québec and have also lived in Montréal, North Bay, Ottawa, Winnipeg, numerous countries in Europe, and now reside in Pemberton, British Columbia. 

I have been painting professionally for 15 years. Following one year at the Ottawa School of Art, I completed the three-year Comprehensive Arts Program at the Saidye Bronfman School of Fine Arts in Montréal. About two years ago, I reached a creative impasse with myself. This past year I have painted for myself, grooming my ideologies and exploring my strengths and pushing myself to the maximum that I possibly can. If there is a name I would like to give myself, my brand or hashtag would be “Nouveaux Automatist”. The Automatists rocked my world. They are the reason I moved to Montréal to go to art school. The idea that when a pen sits on paper, given enough time your arm will inevitably move on its own and make a mark. That is your mark. I was always told in school that I had a great mark, a fearless mark. I made this past year all about my mark as well as some conceptual ideas. 

My journey into abstraction and gesture has me thinking of my muse like the stars in the sky. You can look at them (the stars) as if they are really close and really small, or imagine them far away in space but huge. I want my paint to offer that same confusion of perspective. I would like the viewer to, at times, have it figured out but as you continue the visual journey I offer on my canvas, the ideas of space, they contradict themselves. There is a tension between reality and imagination, a distortion of perspective that's relative to the viewer. 

I am an aggressive painter; I paint with long brushes with bamboo taped to my brushes. I know how to paint. I know what a brush does, but when you extend your arm a few feet, you give up control over the process. However, I do believe that, in surrendering to the control, I have become a truth in my process. I have given my work an abstracted realism. I want to continue this journey. 

I have just turned 40, and I have just discovered my truth. I hope you are as excited as I am about my journey this past 16 years and this year in particular, as I am unapologetically determined to pursue this truth.


When did you first start creating art?

Sometimes when you are good at something it is right in your face but you are too busy looking around it trying to see something else. I never wanted to be ordinary because I’m not ordinary. I have always used art as an outlet and a space to charge my battery. However, it didn’t seem obvious to me. My wild, precarious and fearless spirit distracted me and took me down several paths before I saw myself for me.

I joined the infantry in 1995 for two years, then bartended until I had enough money to leave for a long time where I eventually found myself three years into living on the Greek island of Corfu. It was in Corfu where I had that mid 20’s conversation challenging myself as to whether there was more to life than living on a Greek island? The answer was yes, there was more to life. Next question to my 20 something self, what do you want out of life? The answer, to be successful at what I do and not rely on anyone for my happiness. Next question. Well to be successful at something you should choose what you do best, what is that? The answer, Art! 

Art was always what I was best at and it was my safe place, like home. It was as simple an as complicated as that. So I packed my backpack and flew home to Canada where I enrolled in art school. The rest is history in the making. 


What are you currently working on?

I like what Jerry Seinfeld once said, when he reads the paper, he doesn’t notice the text first, he notices the paper it’s printed on. That’s how I look at life and first impressions. I don’t want to notice what I think people want to notice, I want to take what strikes me right away and try not to veer away from that impression, rather make it shine. 

I am working on several series at once but I approach them both in the same way. With florals, it’s the simplicity of the gesture they are articulating to me. It’s an emotional response, but that doesn’t make it any easier though. Simplicity is a journey. It’s tempting to want to say everything in all paintings. It takes discipline not to.

My spirit series is more complicated and that word alone brings danger and potential for disaster…. But hey, this cookie went through boot camp. Fear doesn’t scare me! 

Although I do have first nation’s blood, (although no one in my family has the same story as to how far back, the Duplesis government was a dark time) I want to be clear that in no way am I using my bloodline for my work, the catalyst for this series can be described in one unapologetic word, curiosity.

I am curious about the mythology that surrounds me, the land that I live on, the history of my own bloodline that is a merging of cultures with all its ugly and beauty, History and future. To be able to make the paint, the gesture, speak to those emotions are again just a matter of discipline. And by discipline, I mean all the things you do before you paint, and many things fall under that umbrella so that when you do paint, you can just let it all go and let it be about the gesture because you already did everything you can to set yourself up for success. I like the phrase “wined her up and let her go…..” like an explosion of wonderful things. 


In your artist statement you describe yourself as an aggressive painter, can you talk a little about this?

My approach to painting is fearless and intuitive. I believe that as a gestural artist that I have to tap into my own energy to truly find my own voice. I am inspired by the automatists and the automatic way of painting. Everyone has a different mark like everyone has a different signature. All the things that define me also define my work. All these things in the past would have defined me as a contradiction but in these modern times, they define me as just as complicated, or an artist. I am feminine, a feminist, I love being a woman. I love pretty things, style, makeup, design, delicate, soft, beauty, seduction, sexy. But I also love dirt, power, strength, physical impact, physical comedy, swearing, bad jokes, laughing hard and loud, fishing, hunting, playing hard, and working hard. My mom always said as a little girl that I would only play with my Tonka trucks if I had my ruby rings on.

So that’s how I paint, some strokes are tender and controlled, some are aggressive and hard. It’s really a frenzy of emotion that I channel to particular marks for particular references in my mind. A falling petal will feel different than a bow and arrow puncturing a hunt. Its life and I gave myself permission to use whatever internal theatrics to get the job done. It’s scary but the results are so honest that it becomes an addiction, a challenge.


Where do you tend to get inspiration for your work?

Simply, from life. I like to garden so I like to paint my babies. I’m curious about the land and cultures coexisting so I paint that. In many ways, I am a simple person. It took me a while to strip it down to simplicity though. A few years ago I was getting lost in the staleness and confines of expectation. In Montréal I found the community to be very vocal about what art is. I don’t like being told what to do, I am all for self-discovery with all the failures and success that come with it. It just feels more real to me. The rebel in me moved across the country and lived a simple life in the mountains of BC, withdrew myself from the business of art and gave myself permission to explore and grow. It’s why I like to fly fish. If tying flies wasn’t part of fly fishing I would not be interested. But learning how to make a fly, then catch a fish!!?!? The casting skill will work itself out in time. 

To go for a hike and see old pictographs surrounded by unique botanicals from first nations land, is fascinating to me. To hear the stories behind those pictographs is thrilling. Wondering who my first nation’s great great grandmother was before the duplesis government was, is something I wonder about often. Who she was, how people treated her, her children, how she grew up, am I like her at all?

Then To plant a perennial or a seed and watch it mature as you nurture it, then paint it. Experience all stages of its life, Thousands of times. The skill will work itself out in time. But there has to be a genuine, reflective and obsessive element to it. It becomes your life, it starts to define who you are as human being. I will likely never paint a bear. They don’t interest me, in fact, they scare me and I often find myself bumping into them on my runs and I run home so bloody fast I nearly give myself a heart attack. Although that might seem like painting to you, its not something I need to fall off the edge of my mind with. A cliff maybe.

It all feels like a maternal obligation to me.


What has been the most exciting moment in your art career so far?

It feels like a ladder to me. And the top of the ladder is not success but rather death. So I don’t ever want to reach the top. Not for a long long time, when my son's son has sons.

So every step is a marking point, and although every step feels more important than the last, you would not get there without any of them. The first was getting scholarships for school. Learning about the Automatists, the silent revolution and the power of artists taking Quebec out of the dark ages with their artists’ manifesto the “refuse global”. Then getting representation while I was still in school. Not having to work in a darn bar anymore. Solo shows in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. Representation in New York City was amazing. Learning from masters was a gift. Discovering my strengths was liberating. Understanding the difference between painting what you see, so instead of responding to it, changed my path. Embracing the idea of abstract realism intrigues me. Most of my marking points are more related to personal growth and I am ultimately a process-oriented artist. 

As of lately, getting published in Create! Magazine was an achievement. My galleries wanting and selling my more abstracted and gestural paintings is motivating. Feedback from my followers, all of that is validating. Something that often as artists we are so desperate to hear and see. Learning that I’m a good teacher justified a legacy I feel I inherited. It’s expensive to paint, to pay for daycare so I can pursue what I know I’m good at. You reach these lows but trust that if you work through it, it will pay off. Figuratively and literally. With this magazine for example, (Create!) I was waiting for a cheque from a gallery to pay off my credit card just so I could afford the application fee. It arrived in the mail, the final day for submissions. I sent it with within hours of closing. And I got in! That was a great day. Instagram has been exciting. To feel connected. Less isolated, to be inspired and to share. They are all just steps in growth, and I trust that one day I won’t have to wait for a cheque in my mail to apply for something! 


Share a piece of advice or a favorite quote with our readers.

Gosh I have so many, we all have our inspirational heartstrings to pull at so I won’t try to sweep you away with a cliché, but rather “process-oriented” advice given to me by some of my mentors.

A painting is a visual journey… a trip, you will go to exciting places, calm places, boring places, you will also need places to rest... all of these places will guide you to your final place, your focal point. (Something like that)

"A painting is like a house, start with your foundation. Don’t put your curtains up before you build your walls.”

-Jennifer Hornyak

And most importantly, “The eye loves variation”. (I cant think of one thing that doesn’t apply to.)”

-Brian Atyeo

“And for goodness sake, paint from your shoulder or at least your elbow, not your wrist. You are not writing a book and your arm should not look like a T. Rex.”